Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My First Day in America

For many Americans, the first big splash into another culture takes place during an expensive vacation:  fine dining in Paris, an historical tour in Egypt, a beach-side hotel in Costa Rica, or a Mediterranean cruise. All things strange and unexpected we perceive as exotic, and exciting. The candy-coating shell of Tourism shields us from the real culture shock we’d go through if we were to make another nation our home.

Thousands of Utahans are living the ultimate culture shock experience. We provide here a few of their stories.

The following are excerpts from essays written for a 2007 contest at Dixon Adult ESL Program in Provo, Utah. The essay contest took submissions from students of beginning to advanced English skill levels. The authors are adults of all ages, varying races, and nationalities. Some are permanent residents, others are undocumented. Enrollment at Dixon is low cost, and therefore the program attracts individuals of varying financial situations. The students were asked to describe their first day in the United States in English. From the many essays, I have gleaned a few interesting stories, and provide them here in several categories: Struggling with English, Being Taken Advantage of, Admiration or Dislike for New Lifestyle, Dealing with Discrimination, Interesting Border Crossing Experiences, and Feeling Welcome.

Struggling with English
Almost every student who submitted writing to the contest spoke of the difficulty of the language barrier. Here are a few particularly engaging examples:

The first day in America I was afraid to step of my house, because I didn’t seake English, but it was encessary for me to step out my house to but things at the supermarket. In the beginning I was helped by my husband because he speaks English very well, but with time I walked alone and I did my things alone. (Ismenia)

My first day in U.S.A. was hard because when I came. I knew some words in English like “Good morning good bye, numbers for 1 to 50 I think so, days of the week . . . and colors. The first day I had to take a bus but I don’t know how ask the bus driver “How much for the trip or ask about a address” the first time when take a bus. I took a wrong line then I was lost and very frightened with that place I called a friend who way me how take the bus for go back myself to where I lived. But when get to married and my sons were born, the life was more hard, because I have more new things about my life with my sons. I saw more necessary learn English.
For example when they necesities go with their doctor or an emergency is very hard because I don’t understand what say the person who attend our healtcare. In the big hospital now had personal who speak Espanish, but is better learn English for understand what happen and what say all people who attend our family. (Olivia)

the second day I got here I went to get a haircut at the mall, they didn’t speak any Spanish so I took my nephew to help me, but he loft to walk around at the mall . . . the lady sho was cutting my hair asked me if I wanted a haircut I replied yes, but I really didn’t understand what she was saying. She cut my hair really, really short. She washed my hair; she put a vitamin in my hair, a hair treatment, she blow dried it a she tryled it. At the end I didn’t like it, my family cam back for me and my nephew asked for the total and she told him it was around $70.00 dollars. It really different from Mexico, because in Mexico it is only 1 price for al that they do to you. Not like here wher you have to pay for everthing extra. I was really mad, frustrated, sad and depressed because I thought it was a lot of money. (Norma)

In the beginning, sometimes I felt terrible. I had never worked so hard. I had to wear old cloths because I did not have to look fancy making locks for the USPH. I used to manage my dad’s business an taught children the elementary or basic English. Here I was working as a workwoman. I felt I could not do anything else because I thought my English was not as good as I needed. (Otilia)

There are embarrasin experiences that I’ve had. First at my grandaughter’s school every time I saw her principal I would walk faster to try to avoid him. the next time I saw him I couln’t get away and he spoke to me in Spanish. That was a surprise!
My other experience was at the mall. I needed to go to the bathroom and instead of asking for the bathroom I asked for the bedroom. The lady told me that they didn’t sell them that I needed to go to a furniture store. (Bertha)

When a bus driver asked me what I as doing here on my way back from the Provo Centre Mall on third day after my arrival, I answered that I was studying “English”. But they, the driver and another passenger, didn’t understand what I was saying. The more I repeated the same answer, the more they got confused. and eventually I gave up on them understanding my poor English. It was an awkward moment caused by language barriers. I has been happening not only on the third day but also every day so far. On the third day I was really shocked and depressed. I still get depressed when others don’ understand what I say. It is because of my muddy pronunciation in English, especially having the wrong intonation. I just pray to God to help me improve my English. (Sinsung)

Being Taken Advantage Of

March 30, 1999 was my first day in the USA. On that day the airplane arrived in Miami. I needed to run to the other connection and I didn’t have enough time. I tired to take a little car because I had my suit case and I wasn’t sure where I needed to go, but the guy wanted $100 dollars. I said no and I offered him $20, still a lot but much better. (Alicia)

I arrive to Los Angeles, my aunt was at the station, but I didn’t see her. So, I felt nervious and I didn’t know how to call her. I told ano many who was sitting next to me: “can you help me, please? I nee to call my aunt, but I don’t know how.” The man called my aunt and after told me: O.K. you aunt is coming. I said “thanks for your help.”
“You need to pay me ten dollars.”
“Ten dollars?” It’s a lot of money.
I opened my purse and I gave him 3 dollars. (Veneranda)

Admiration or Dislike for New Lifestyle

American Values: Privacy, Safety, Cleanliness, Responsibility

When I saw for the fird time the orem house I to saw that many, many houses didn’t have fenses because they didn’t need them.
One when I walked in a neighborhood and I looked in the yards there were, many bicycles, soccer balls, scooters, and other toys, and esked my brother “why aren’t the peole scard that someone will rob them?”, my brother said to me utah is a safe palce to live and is it would be stupid to go to jail for taking a cicycle worth 10 or 20 bucks. (Eduardo)

I remember the first, my brother in law said my put on the seatbelt, at Mexico not is obligatory use, and is uncomfortablo. For a first time. This country have meny rules. Here is clean no trash in the street, the highway and the roads es at good condition. at Mexico is bad a long time. I like the clean and told my children to not take out the trash at any place, only at the garbage can. (Deida)

The first thing I liked of this country when I got here as the order of the authority and the cleanest. Also the people here are different from my country because the people here are educated. (Ruben)

I notice that the streets were clean and the city was very neat and calm; no noisy; Utah has big mountain. (Maria)

I like the big space. When I saw the street I couldn’t belive how much space there was. Three home in each side, you could drive with a confort I thought you drive with more safety in my contry it was different the streets there were small just for lane, the cars were very near one another, you feel in danger. (Analia)

I never did any hard work, when I was in Mexico. ! I learned a lot! The ideas I had about the United States, at that the mayority of people herre are friendly and everybody has an equal opportunity, for better job, study, live on peace and security. (Ma. Elena)

When my friend arrived, talked to me about the responsabilities that assume to arrive here:
- To pay the rest of you room,
- To pay for your food,
- To but a car,
- To pay a car’s insurance,
- To pay for your cell phone.
All this it didn’t scare to me because always said me myself: “If others can do it, I also will can do it”. (Wilder)

Technology and Amenities

The home for me was little bit stranger, because I wasn’t custom of take a shower in tub and in the kitchen I had difficulty with the sink and stove, because the sink gave hot water and cold and sometimes I burned my hands because I forgot about this. The stove, I didn’t know use the oven and I burnned many cakes....and the first time that I used the oven the smoke alarm started doing noises and I was worried about this and openned the door and windows and stayed blowing for help over noise fast.” (Ismenia)

The amasement for all the new thing that I never saw before in my country, for example, the technology, safety, etc, for this reason keep living in the USA.
Once a police car stoped in the Apollo Burger parking lot (my brother worked  in Apollo Burger), and the police man went inside to have his lunch and I saw the police car inside, the computer, the radar, etc. I said “used computer in the cars”, in my country this doesn’t existent. (Eduardo)


When I came to this nation I noticed that our cultures are very different. For example, when I made a party in Mexico, I didn’t really notice if the music bothered our neighbors. Today I have learn that I have to respect others so they can respect me. (Alicia)

Danny drove me to Provo and stopped at 7 eleven for a soda and we went to Danny’s house and he told me that he had a party for me. I was thinking of music, many people dancing, and other things of aparty, but to my surprise in the house were six people, food, and that was it. I said to him, “Danny where’s the party?” He said, “it’s the party.” was funny to me. Like 12:30 am I went in the bed. (Yennifer)

American Food

My family and I arrived to Salt Lake City at 9:00pm. Next day we went to tour Salt Lake City. We visited the Zoo, the mall, there we enjoyed a delicious typical American Lunch: hamburger, fried potatoes, chicken salad, tortilla soup, pizza, chicken nugget and catsup, ice cream of chocolate, beverages, coke diet coke for me root beer and bottled water, dessersts, cheesecake, cherry pie, afterwards we wento to the movie theater to watch a movie about the pioneers. (Angelica)

The first day the travelis so tired when I had a lot hungred, and I don’t like the taste of the food especially, wather tortilla, meet. (Angela)

Deferent lenguage, culture and food. for example, in my country, we have big varity of fresh fruits and vegetables. (Ma. Elena)

Another thing that is different for us is the food and the time to eat too. Usually we have dinner at noon and a small snack in the evening. Americans eat fast food every day but we try to keep our costums but it is hard because we can’t find the ingredients that we use but if we find them, they are expensive. Living in U.S. is very difficult for us especially for me because I don’t speak English well. In Provo we have been living for 8 months now I know that we should enjoy the cultural differences, because these will help us to grow. (Yolanda)

Eating is so different when it was time to eat, I wasn’t hungry, it took two weeks to get use to, so I had a problem with my stomach. (Vinas)

Communication Customs, Friendliness

I went to New York on business. At Airport there were check up very strictly. I waited my turn at the waiting line. When my turn came, I thought that American is very rude. Because when he call me, he used his forefinger . . . After work I visited my aunt’s house. She lived in Orlando. I wanted to look around my aunt’s house. There were two people, they were jogging. When they were passing my side, they said to me “Hello” I thought “Hello? to me? Why? They Know me? How?” It was strange to me. When we went inside the mall, One man held the door for us. After came back to Korea. I hated my country & my country’s people for a while. Because we didn’t know if who live in the next door. When we met at the elevator, we din’t say anything. and when we go to store, they never open door for unknown person. I thought that American have mind’s space because the line in big land. =) After 4 years, I came U.T. But it is not the same feeling that I felt before about American. They are not more diligent than Korean. They look friendly but they are not friendlier that Korean. (Sunny)

My first day in America It was a surprise, because I thougt this country is a little town, whith animals how horses, pigs and cows the similar to the farms, but is the same as my hometown with buildings, hotels, movie theatre, restaurants, stores, malls, supermarkets, etc. All days are the same from my house to the work and from the work to my house, life is routine. But in my country the people are very friendly, speaking of different thinks, we buy elotes, ice cream, duritos, churros, etc. and here each person lives in his own world. I missing my country. (Silvia)

Everything was different from where I come from because the people in Chile always care about what athers are doing, about what they are wearing and the things that any one does. when I realized in the United States people cared about you but in a different way, they are nicer and they are always willing to give you a hand, if you are having trouble with something. They would welcome you to a new neighborhood and say hello even thought you don’t know the person. In Chile, only a few would do that because a lot of them are shy and they are not rally used to that. In Chile when you don’t know the person very well, they look back to you in a funny way. I remembered a time when I said hello to several people, just to see if they would say it back but only a few responded. (Carla)

Community Lifestyle

I woke up and ate my first American breakfast (milk, eggs, baycon and cereal) and went outside, I didn’t saw anyone walking there were no buses, just a few cars driving, my friendo told me what they life in Payson is quiet, very different that Madred and she told me too that I need to buy a car because here without car, you can’t do anything, so that afternoom I went to provo with her and bought a car, at the dealer I felt o much frustated because I didn’t understood nothing and in the night when I arive to home I felt homesick. (Maria)

My first day in America was different, everything was different . . . There was much more space on the streets and space for parking and in the stores, space between the houses. I could see a vending machine in every place I must have quarters if I wanted something I couldn’t see small stores except the gasoline store I thought [this] cantry in my contry it is custom speak with everyone when you buy something, the space is small there the houses are smaller. (Analia)

Dealing with Discrimination

My first experience in this city was uncomfortable because I asked information to a person in spanish and she said I don’t speak spanish because we are in the USA territory. That’s something i didn’t like because any person has the right to get help no matter their limitations. (Karla)

When I wehen to the stores of differents places all the people spoke English and I felt bad because I coudn’t speak and understand, this was a big barrier and some people were rude or discrimatory. (Erika)

my next door neighbor was acting like a lot of rude people, were so mean with him for and for some reason he doesn’t like my little boy because he is dark skinned and many times we hae to call the police to stop him from using his gun to point to my sweet heart and special baby. My neighbor Glenn, he talked to him to know what was happening with us of if something was bothering his family from us and he just told him, he didn’t like Mexican’s, now I feel sorry for him because he is about 30 years old and it’s so sad see a man so young having this feelings. After couple of weeks we went to court to talk to the judge and when they saw the man file, he has on his record the same problem with other Mexican people in other city, the judge decide to tell him to stay far a way from my family to protect us, I was so scared until the judge told me to be welcome to this country and to not feel scared of Americans, because he told me we will be able to find nice people on our way to be friends, I still remember the judge’s face because he made me feel how many people is gentle and generous in here, Utah and I’m sure in many city’s from U.S. The most I learned for this bad experience is how the law protect people without any preference. (Rosa)

[My daughters] had to cross the line [at the El Paso, Texas airport] and the luggage had to be checked; later in time some dogs sniffed the luggage and suddenly they jumped on the bags and got crazy thinking they could eat something. the officers thought my daughters were carrying some kind of drug. The driver of the taxi was a recommended person in which my sister trusted.
The driver phoned me to explain the problem, informing me that my children were isolated in a room and they could not phone or go anywhere. I required the driver to find or investigate the name of the policeman that took that action. I phoned many times, but nobody wanted to tell me anything about them. I was getting desperate and planning to fly to El Paso, TX. After a few minutes, [my daughter] called me to inform that the officer had already taken out their Mexican passports, the USA visa and all their identification cards. She was extremely nervous, and so scared . . . Mr. Whetten [a banker friend]  was so gentle and comprehensive that in a few minutes he talked to the Mexican Consulate telling them that my daughters were is nieces so they took action immediately. Then after several hours being at the American Border Office, a well-dressed man came to the immigration place asking what was going on with my children. The officers did not know how to apologize, they were concerned, they took advantage of their position and could not find how to excuse or explain the actions they took. The Mexican Consul inquired of my children about what happened exactly, asking them if they were badly treated of treated disrespectfully or if they had anything to complain about those guys. [My daughters] were very astonished and scared but after talking to the gentleman they were so happy and grateful to him for helping them . . . The real problem was some packages of chicken flavor bouillon sent from one of my twin sisters. The bouillon smell got the dogs crazy. (Otilia)

Interesting Border Crossing Experiences

Lillu, from Delicias, Mexico,  tells a detailed account of her son immigrating to Utah, and having a traumatic factory accident. She came to the United States to see him in the hospital just before his hand was amputated. The ease with which she and her nephew crossed the border without passports or visas is surprising:

From Delicias to El Paso is approximately 400 miles. All the way, my nephew talked to me about my son. I was devastated, we made a stop at the check point where we had to show our passports, if you have to go further, you have to explain for how long and what is the purpose of your trip. they usually ask for a lot of proof about your job in Mexico, or what kind of business you have, anything that proves your status. With this crisis I was having, I completely forgot, but we explained to the immigration officer about my son, and he had compassion for us and we didn’t have any problem crossing the border.

This one, written by a student named Maria is a little difficult to comprehend, but her confusion and frustration is easily understood:

I to arrive in airoport the Miami. my first experience was very bad. The agent said the line please, I don’’t understand Sr. I’m question other person the person I said the profine. The agentsaid at the office the migration every time to interrogate what name to working in the United Sates. I never to working. I is my first time in the United States. The interrogate was six between eight hours. Was awful. (Maria)

This border-crossing episode related by Rosendo must have been difficult to endure at the time, but his bluntness gives me reason to believe it must be an experience he chuckles about now:

When I come to the United States the first time the coyote that was bringing us his car got bad tired in the freeway. He change the tire and then he put the tired on top of us. That tire was very hot in our bodies. I like this country and I want to learn the language of English. Thank you very much. (Rosendo)

Feeling Welcome

When I came to USA I was surprised to see the people here; they were very nice to me. they knew I as from other country and they were willing to help me. (Maria)

It’s different my country . . . Not the same [the United States] wasn’t friendly, ubt in Laos is friendly. (Vinas)

The people of the United States have ahd an impact on me, especially the people in the state of Utah. It’s the love I felt from people. (Alma)

Although these essay excerpts offer a lot of insight into the immigration experience, they are presented by individuals who feel the crippling condition of language deficiency. These are people desperate for the knowledge necessary to accurately convey who they are and what they’ve experienced.

But the most important to know English in my case, is how easy everything is going talking about my feelings with my friends . . . our new American friends will be part of our new family. (Rosa)


  1. That was fascinating! Thanks for sharing! My husband and I lived in Fiji among the locals, and I definitely related to many of these stories. Thank you for sharing that!

  2. Each culture is so different. I think a lot of the problems occur because of language miscommunications. I think many American's are not friendly out of fear of not being able to communicate. While in India, it was nice to have someone even wave or smile at me, just to communicate that I was welcome in their community. It is interesting to read about experiences where people from the USA have tried to take advantage of those that come here, and then compare my experiences of being taken advantage of in India. The idea of being the majority or authority, for some reasons encourage control or manipulation of the minority. Instead we should be trying to learn from the minority or those that are different than us.

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